Eco-trafficking is no longer the preserve of a handful of poachers, loggers and specialized smugglers, but has become a billion-dollar trade run by transnational organized crime networks that spread corruption, violence and environmental destruction in their wake throughout Latin America.

The natural resources of South and Central America make rich pickings for savvy criminals with the right contacts. The rainforests of the Amazon and Central America contain a wealth of valuable timber, while the region’s array of exotic wildlife supplies goods for both local markets and wealthy foreign collectors.

According to a recent report on environmental crime by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (pdf), the illegal timber trade alone brings in estimated annual profits of $100 billion, while the global wildlife trade is worth an estimated $19 billion annually, with approximately 350 million plants and animals sold on the black market every year.

This is the first part of a two part series on eco-trafficking in Latin America. See part two here.

The profits on offer have seen eco-trafficking emerge as one of the most lucrative forms of organized crime, both in Latin America and around the world.

“Sometimes it is known as an emerging crime, but for us, wildlife and timber crime is no longer emerging,” Jorge Rios, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) new Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime (GP), told InSight Crime. “It falls into the same category as drug trafficking, arms trafficking and human trafficking because it is clear from the patterns of transit and seizures and the amount of resources that are involved, that it is transnational organized crime.”

Big Profits, Big Crime Networks

Compared to the criminal poster boys of the drug cartels, little is known about the networks behind eco-trafficking, but the UNODC is convinced many of them maintain a broad portfolio of criminal activities.

“These are organized criminal networks that also deal with drugs and other illicit commodities — they’re as good as anyone else, they diversify,” said Rios.

The Global Initiative report breaks down the eco-trafficking chain into three links; source, transit, and destination. The first group involved is the bottom of the chain, those that fell the trees and hunt the animals. The second is the smugglers that move the product, either illicitly or by turning it into a legal product through fraud or by manufacturing. The last is the vendors, collectors, consumers and businesses that sell or use the final product, and the criminal “controllers” that oversee the whole chain.

According to Bernardo Ortiz, head of the South America office of wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic, it is at the second stage that eco-trafficking commonly intersects with established organized crime groups.

“You have the people who have invested money in buying and putting all these things together and then you start seeing how the experts on illegality start facilitating the flow of these commodities through controls,” he told InSight Crime. “These are the same guys who know how to bring any illegal stuff through these corridors.”

In Colombia, where organized crime’s roots run deep, the overlap between eco-trafficking and the trafficking of drugs, arms, cash and people is substantial, according to Ortiz. But even in countries with less developed trafficking networks, the two will likely interact.

“Once you get into dirty business, you are always going to end up bumping into those that control whatever illegal activities,” he said.

In Colombia and Peru, eco-trafficking is also linked to illegal armed groups. In Colombia, guerrilla and narco-paramilitary groups charge “taxes” on any illicit shipments passing through the remote territories they control, while in Peru, the Shining Path guerrillas also profit from the illegal logging trade, according to the authorities.

In other areas, organized crime groups dedicated to eco-trafficking — in particular the timber trade — appear to have evolved. In Nicaragua, communities and the authorities have complained of a growing “wood mafia” and the presence of Honduran armed groups seeking to profit from timber illegally logged in remote border regions.

However, in the country that has seen the most violence around eco-trafficking — Brazil — it is lawlessness and impunity rather than organized crime that is driving the killing. A recent investigation by Global Witness revealed at least 448 environmental and land activists were murdered between 2002 and 2013, the majority of the killings linked to logging.

While only 1 percent of cases resulted in a conviction, according to Global Witness, loggers and landowners rather than armed groups are widely believed to be behind the murders.

Market Diversity for Biodiversity

Timber and wildlife trafficking in Latin America serve both the high volume, low price domestic market, and the low volume but sky-high price of foreign export markets. But the routes to market are very different.

Wildlife trafficking for the domestic market commonly involves the sale of restricted products, such as the turtles and iguanas traditionally devoured over Lent in Colombia, or crocodile meat destined for the insatiable market in northern Brazil.

Illegal timber is also easily disposed of in the local market, waved through by corrupt officials and snapped up by construction companies that pay scant attention to the forged paperwork, according to Ortiz’s investigations with Traffic.

However, as in the drug trade, while national markets make quick and easy profits, the big money is made abroad. For wildlife traffickers, that means either smuggling animals and plants out of the country, or laundering them into a “legal” product before export.

Much of the demand is driven by private collectors in the United States and Europe seeking rare plants and animals. It is met by Latin American traders who have contacts in remote regions to source and traffic what the collectors order, and a trusted sales and distribution network.

According to Ortiz, these networks commonly conduct their business in both the legal and illegal worlds, and deals are often struck and contacts made on the fringes of gatherings such as trade fairs.

“On the sides of the meeting, in the hotels nearby, you have the collectors selling the stuff you cannot showcase in these fairs,” he said.

After deals have been struck, traffickers commonly move the animals and plants by air using similar methods to those used to send small quantities of drugs. Animals are drugged and stashed in luggage, or strapped to the smuggler, and eggs are carefully hidden about the person. Living contraband is also often hidden among legal wildlife shipments.

When the product is no longer alive then there is sometimes the opportunity to merge it with the legal market before it hits customs.

One of the most notorious examples of this is the caiman farms of Colombia, which provide skins for luxury clothing items. The farms legally export caiman skins, but they sell far more than they could feasibly produce — because, according to Ortiz, they illegally source eggs, hatchlings and young caiman from the wild.

Trafficking timber abroad requires a similar laundering into the legal market, but demands different skills from smugglers.

“Timber is more difficult because it is harder to hide logs than birds, so it requires more subtle illegality from people who know how to use the system and make use of documents,” said Ortiz.

As a result, traffickers rely on maintaining a network of corrupt officials that will let shipments pass and false documents slide.

“We know that timber crime is basically corruption; false permits, using supposedly legal permits, it’s just putting it on a container and paying someone off,” said Rios.

According to Rios, the biggest foreign market for illegal Latin American timber is Asia. Traffickers slip through shipments using falsified permits and bills of landing, received by processing companies that avoid questions about the wood’s origins or the legitimacy of the documents that accompany it.

“They know very well,” he said. “They have a legal export permit and that’s what they use to say ‘look, I’m complying with my obligation, here’s the permit.’ But they don’t check the company that sends it to them.”

While some of the freshly legalized timber is sold in Asia, much of it is shipped on to the United States, Europe, or even back to Latin America.

Despite this array of products, sources and destinations, all eco-trafficking relies on some level of coordination from the classic trinity of illegality; organized crime, corrupt businesses and corrupt officials.

Currently in Latin America, all three operate with almost complete impunity.

“It flows as they want, no matter what country you’re in,” said Ortiz.

This is the first in a two-part series on eco-trafficking in Latin America. See the second part here.

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